Silence on Brahmaputra

India’s satisfaction over Chinese withdrawing forces from Doklam will come to naught, if the Communist giant really had some hand in the abnormal increase in turbidity of Brahmaputra waters. It’s been going for nearly two months. The phenomenon was first visible around two months ago in Siang river, the major tributary of Brahmaputra river that flows down into three countries — China, India and Bangladesh — before merging into Bay of Bengal. It was Ninong Ering, the Congress MP from Arunachal East, who first flagged the issue by writing a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to raise it in international forum. Then followed the numerous reports coming from all along the course of Siang and Brahmaputra.

Guwahati, the heart of North-east, is already shaken by reports of its potable water sourced from Brahmaputra getting highly contaminated. Households complained of receiving whitish water. Eyewitnesses, who are used to see much clearer water of the ‘red river’ during this time, are shocked to see highly muddy water of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati. Even the water transport authorities in Guwahati recorded more time taken by ferries to cross the river due to the abnormal increase in turbidity of the river. The department expressed concern over the high consumption of diesel by the ferries due to the phenomenon. Meanwhile, fishermen — thousands depend on the mighty river for livelihood — have complained having much lower catch this time compared to earlier years. The Arunachal MP already complained about D Ering wildlife sanctuary having seen no migratory birds, a usual sight, so far.

It’s been a war-like situation with a large population and flora and fauna getting affected by the abnormal phenomenon of the river. Sadly, the Central government is not seen giving due importance to the issue. One Assam government minister said it was due to the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that rocked Tibet region on November 18. His basis of the claim is unknown even as the Arunachal MP and others are unconvinced. How can an earthquake in Tibet has such long-term effect spreading across hundreds of miles for weeks, if not months, together? There are many more possibilities such as China digging the Yarlung Zangbo river bed to construct massive dam or long underground tunnel, reports of which were earlier denied by the secretive nation. Hope the Modi-led government is able to maintain its ‘strong’ image by digging the truth soon and allay the fear of Assam and entire North-east.

Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on December 8, 2017

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The Greed Factor

After demolishing over 400 houses illegally built inside Amchang wildlife sanctuary area in Guwahati, the Assam government finally sought a stay on the drive which the Gauhati High Court granted. The people, around 700 families, got some relief although a large number of them still had to spend the night under open sky. Many students could not appear in their examinations while parents of many have lost their livelihood as shops and business establishments also came under the bulldozer. It is not that these people aka encroachers have not committed any mistake. While deciding to settle down, these people ignored the fact that they don’t have their land papers alright, meaning the government did not allow settlement in the area. They hardly knew that it comes under the wildlife sanctuary!

‘Greed factor’ comes into play in illegal settlements. Most of these areas where settlements are not allowed do not have any boundary. Even if there are natural boundaries like hills, streams, and beels, people living nearby initially use such areas for collection of forest resources. With increase of intervention and no authorities coming to prevent the activities, the idea of settlements come. The first settler do not put much into risk. As years go by, the settlements grow in size and immensity. Thatched structures start getting replaced with concrete ones. And who don’t want to own a house in the metro city even it on its outskirts. The Amchang wildlife sanctuary is going to be within the city limits within next 10-15 years. A house in the city is a prized possession. For the later settlers, who ‘bought’ the land at higher price, the argument was ‘if so many people have already settled, why can’t us… it will be fine one day’. But it won’t! They must be cursing the brokers who lured them there promising proper settlement in the future.

Most of the settlers inside the 110 sq km proposed eco-sensitive zone comprising Amchang wildlife sanctuary are either people working in Guwahati for years but staying in rented houses or those who migrated from rest of the state under different circumstances including erosion affected families. While these families can be blamed why they did not think about getting a rented house rather than building a permanent one besides spending money on buying illegal land, the government bias here cannot be ignored too. The ruling BJP knows for certain that it might lose the particular constituency in the next election for this unpopular move, but it will gain support elsewhere for ‘acting as per law’ in evicting illegal settlers. However, the government would not have dared such action had Amchang being under the constituency of an influential minister. The government now needs to prevent encroachment into all reserved forest areas across the state before it becomes another Amchang.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on December 2, 2017)

Trust or No-Trust

There is no gain for Opposition parties in toppling of the current Congress-led government in Meghalaya. With elections barely two months away, the Opposition can only embarrass the government by bringing a no-trust motion. If tabled, a no-trust motion can really expose the ‘minority’ government. Of the Congress’ 30 MLAs, as many as five are on their way out of the party. Four Congress legislators — former deputy chief minister Rowel Lyngdoh, former ministers Prestone Tynsong and Sniawbhalang Dhar and Umroi MLA Ngaitlang Dhar — are all set to join the National People’s Party (NPP). Also, suspended Congress MLA/MDC and chief executive member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), PN Syiem, will be leading the newly-floated People’s Democratic Front (PDF). Besides, at least four independent legislators, who were supporting the government, have decided to part way with the Congress this time. Justine Dkhar and Robinus Syngkon declared their intention to join the BJP while Stephanson Mukhim has opted to join the NPP.  Rophul Marak has also decided to withdraw his support from the Mukul Sangma-led government due to “lack of development” in South Garo Hills district.

As at least nine MLAs are going out of the ruling side, the government is very unlikely to muster the support of 30, the halfway mark, in the event of a no-trust motion. So, a defeat is very likely if the opposition decides to bring the no-trust in the forthcoming three-day assembly session. But will it be a good call for the opposition to take? The main opposition party UDP has decided not to disturb the government at this juncture while the emerging NPP — although it has only two MLAs — has other intention. If the government falls at this stage, it will either lead to advancing the election or imposition of President’s Rule. None of the options are welcome for any political party, let alone the Congress. The MLA’s top priority at this moment is to spend maximum time in their constituencies. They have to show their faces, which went missing for five years, to the people as many times as they can during these days. Any political upheaval now will only divert their time, money and energy to something not very useful. In case of the rebel Congress MLAs, they might face disqualification from the party, which will be an embarrassment for them. The government also might squeeze funds meant for MLA schemes in their constituencies. But this is the time when they need the funds most, to distribute freebies in the hope of getting votes in return. No-trust seems to be unfeasible, better trust Mukul for another two months.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on December 1, 2017)

Dividend of Peace

There is a relatively peaceful situation in the restive Garo Hills region of Meghalaya in the past couple of years. The decline started with surrender of militants and disbanding of some groups in the period. Initiatives from church leaders to bring back youth to mainstream, repeated government appeals and also sustained counter-insurgency have resulted in making rebels laying down their arms. A section also believes that following demonetisation one year ago the rebel outfits, who were creating havoc with extortion and kidnapping, ran out of the hard cash without which it became difficult to operate. There were even reports of rebels trying to deposit large amount of old cash in people’s bank accounts. However, the Congress government in Meghalaya would find it hard to admit that demonetisation had any impact on insurgency, which witnessed a sharp decline in the past couple of years.

With the decline in militancy, the people movement in the region has increased, which is essential for running of an economy. In this globalised world, isolated territories cannot be economically sustainable. There is need for institutions running and events happening for a local economy to sustain. Although there is an utter lack of institutions in Garo Hills so far, the economy would breathe some air if the existing institutions function properly. Respite from insurgency would leave government officials with no excuse for not attending office regularly. There could be still instances of officials turning up once or twice a month in the ‘insurgency-hit’ region. While sometimes there are genuine reasons (for long absence) most often utter neglect is the culprit. But with the change of situation, these offices are expected improve their functioning.

Garo Hills has of late seen many events right from various training programmes to festivals being held across the region. Some of them are held even in interior areas once known as ‘no-go’ region. The criticism that such events are hardly of any worth and wastage of government money may hold some water, but it cannot be denied that even such ‘worthless’ activities have some contribution to the local economy. It is a different thing to ensuring quality or real purpose of the events and another get the immediate economic gain out of them. If the current way of things carries on, without much socio-political disturbance, Garo Hills might soon see some ray of light in near future.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 25, 2017)

Education Blues

With elections on the cards, there is a pressing need to analysing the current status and various issues related to the different sectors of development in the state. Shillong was once a hot favourite destination for education. Most people from North-east now acquiring higher positions elsewhere in India and abroad have some or other education roots in Shillong. But, the scenario has changed over the years. Thanks to lack of government initiatives and other socio-political reasons including anti-outsider agitations, education in the capital city has taken a back seat in the past few decades. Except for the Rajiv Gandhi IIM (the only IIM named after a person!) and the NIT Meghalaya, no other major institute has come up in Shillong in decades together. Every major private initiatives like one Delhi Public School (DPS), University of Science and Technology Meghalaya (USTM), and Mahatma Gandhi University set up in Meghalaya are on the border with Assam, catering to the education need of Guwahati city. It appears the institutes are set up in Meghalaya for other benefits like cheaper land price, tax etc. The government announced setting up of two medical colleges – one in Tura and the other in Shillong – a couple of years ago, but has not been able to make any visible progress in the projects.

Scene of education in rural areas especially in backward and militancy-affected Garo Hills region is pathetic. There are a number of districts among total 11 in the state that do not have any college with science stream. In some districts, the pass percentage in 2017 class X board examination was as low as 21% in South West Garo Hills, which is the home district of the chief minister, even as the overall percentage being 54%.

The plight of education can be gauged from the fact that teachers in the state are either on the streets or wear black badges throughout the year, demanding salaries pending for months. Most teachers are untrained and they are reluctant to undergo tests to certify their teaching abilities for obvious reasons. They are too on the streets alleging faulty marking system in the evaluation process conducted by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). Genesis of the entire problem is faulty recruitment process in the schools practised over the years. While the government can always be blamed for such discrepancies, there is no guarantee a new government will have instant solutions to these issues. However, what is desirable from a government is visible and serious intention to address such problems so that the public can be rest assured that at least some serious attempts are made to better their lives.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 24, 2017)

Mega Food Park

They say there is one business that will never run out of business i.e. food. From time immemorial, food is being traded either for other goods or money. Food capsules are yet to become alternative for food, they it seems will remain as food supplement. The entire concept of self-sufficiency is built upon food. It is food, animal or human, that decides the health of a country. India like many other countries in the world is malnourished because most people don’t have access to healthy food. Sometimes they lack awareness about ‘good food’. Junk food was once considered good food. Most people, especially poor, still believe it’s good and aspire to have them; and regret for not being able to have them.

Many a times, the price tag decides the perception of food quality. Recently, the coveted Hilsa became available for Rs 200-300 in the markets of North-east, thanks to its abundance in Brahmaputra near Goalpara. However, after a period of panic buying, people lost interest on it. They used to buy Hilsa at Rs 800-1200 per kg, and cherish the ‘taste’ and talk about its ‘good quality’, ‘health benefits’ etc. Now that Hilsa price nosedived, there seems to be less takers. Similarly, guava and papaya compared to apple are less attractive fruits in Eastern India, due to the latter’s scarcity, not because of its nutritional value. In villages, there are thousands of herbs and nutritional foods available without planting them. But people are either skeptic or disinterested about easily available things. They would grab the same once packaged and sold in the shop.

The aspiration for look, even in food, led to the birth of food processing industry. It was not an industry when food was processed for the individual need longer storage. North-east being the world’s one of the biodiversity richest regions, there is no death of raw materials for food processing industry. Ramdev’s Patanjali has realised it more than a decade ago and started plans for setting up a mega food park, which is no coming up at Tezpur in Assam. The food park, which is set to benefit farmers across the region, is likely change the dynamics of food processing industry of India. There can be a lot of maiden products developed at the Park. Around this industry, there can be a lot of other industries catering to this Park with semi-processing of the materials, transportation and commercial farming.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 17, 2017)

Bold Government

Is Assam the most corrupt state of India, or is the Assam government one of the most proactive governments against corruption? Is there any political witch-hunting behind the massive crackdown on corrupt practices by the state government since it came to power in May, 2016? These questions have cropped up in view of the recent arrest of as many as 19 — and more on the cards — civil service officials appointed by the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC) in 2013. There are at least seven more officials who are absconding. Accused of bribing officials to get their jobs, the culprits include family members of minister in the current BJP government, former Congress government and current union minister! Such a massive crackdown on corruption has not been heard in recent times in any part of India. Over a dozen officials were already arrested in connection with the scam. Whatever is the intention of the current political dispensation, the arrests have sent a very strong signal to the new generation against indulging in corrupt practices.

The tip of the iceberg in the APSC scam was an FIR lodged by a Dibrugarh-based dentist, Angshumita Gogoi, against a broker who approached her to get her a job through APSC in lieu of Rs 15 lakh. That broker turned out to be Nabakanta Patir, an assistant engineer in the town and planning department posted at Dibrugarh. After catching him red handed police found evidence of his link of the then APSC chairman Rakesh Paul, who was already under fire for the scam in selection of candidates for civil service, police service and other allied services. The new BJP government despite its effort could not remove Paul from the post due to a constitutional provision. But, not for long. Patir’s arrest led to the quick unraveling of the scam and arrest of one after another official including Paul, who hails from Tura in Garo Hills of Meghalaya. It was found that whole answer scripts were written at Paul’s house and other places with fake signatures of invigilators, examiners and scrutinisers.

Besides the APSC scam, Assam has seen numerous arrests of government officials and top businessmen in various scandals. In February 2017, six officials of social welfare department were arrested in connection with a multi-crore-rupees scam of the department. In July this year, four persons including a deputy commissioner of the Assam Exise department were arrested in connection with a multi-crore tax evasion case. Two liquor barrons were among those put behind the bars. Five officials of the agriculture department were arrested in connection with financial irregularities of nearly Rs 700 crore in implementation of Bringing Green Revolution in Eastern India and Rashtriya Krishi Vikash Yojaja schemes in 2012-14. Within a month of the BJP taking over, Assam saw the arrest of a powerful divisional forest officer (DFO) who was caught red handed taking Rs 30000 bribe. Police later recovered close to Rs 3 crore in cash and animal parts including tiger skin, deer skin and elephant tusks. Interestingly, all these scams took place during the tenure of the former Congress government. Although the question whether popular crackdown against corrupt officials is a political witch-hunting remains valid, these actions have definitely put the BJP on a stronger ground especially when elections are due in several north-eastern states.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 11, 2017)

Loose Statement

Politicians are known for making loose statements to appease their constituencies. From Trump to Modi, there are numerous instances of even global political leaders making statements that they now like the people to forget. Modi had in 2014 said, once given the mandate, he would bring back the black money of Indians stashed abroad which he estimated would fetch Rs 15 lakh in each Indian’s bank account. However, the statement was later, and still, distorted by the Congress and other opposition parties claiming Modi had promised to put Rs 15 lakh in each Indian’s account. Trump, on the other hand, famously advocated for barring Muslims from coming into the US. These aberrations will remain with them as long as they remain in the highest office. However, there were so many things spoken by political leaders suiting the instant purpose, and later forgotten conveniently.

While radical statements make most of the headlines, shallow and loose statements often lack the attention. Obviously, shallow comments are not made by statesmen, and deserve less space in the media. Unlike, other parts of India, political leaders in the North-east are not known for making strong antagonistic statements. But, very often they say things out of context. Such a comment was recently made by Meghalaya’s deputy chief minister RC Laloo. He said ‘tribal people in Meghalaya don’t have black money’. By making this sweeping statement, Laloo, a former professor, gave a clean chit to all tribal political leaders in the 6th Schedule state. He was actually referring to the exemption indigenous tribals of North-east enjoy — they don’t need to pay income tax. But, income tax is not the only criterion to make an estimate on black money.

In Meghalaya, like any other states, politicians and businessmen, both tribal and non-tribal, have amassed wealth disproportionate to their disclosed income. They may not need to pay income tax, but they have to disclose their income source and it can be an illegal one. Going by the logic of Laloo, a tribal dealing in arms smuggling but no visible legal income source, can acquire unlimited number of property until he is caught red handed. Would he not face any scrutiny from the authorities! Besides, people in business have to pay tax other than Income Tax, irrespective of their community. Any discrepancy would lead to stashing of black money, the money that is not accounted for. Laloo, with his statement, also tries to give clean chit to all the corrupt tribal officials who have built mansions with a few thousand salary at the cost of the public exchequer. The public must read through such loose political statements and make a choice whenever the chance comes.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 10, 2017)

Scam of a Decade

Meghalaya’s current cabinet minister Ampareen Lyngdoh, accused in the education scam, has at least nine months to breathe, freely. Five ministers of the time (2009), and seven other legislators including the then speaker and deputy speaker of assembly, and several other politicians were embroiled in the scam. They all have the same lifeline. The high court while ordering a CBI inquiry, a big setback to the current Congress-led government ahead of elections, gave six months to the central agency to file its report. Then the report will be examined by another scrutiny committee led by chief secretary before recommending action within three months of receipt of the CBI report. By the time, assembly election will be over, and new government will be in. Although the high court reprimanded the erstwhile high level scrutiny committee (HLSC) for ‘soft-paddling and leaving the crux of the matter unattended’, entrusting another government committee to examine the CBI probe report has the risk of soft-paddling again.

Likely most government scams, the education scam has been shelved time and again since 2009. The government has, so far, shown no intention to proceed on the case. The usual answer to any question regarding the scam has been, ‘law will take its own course’. The scam is not about draining the exchequer, but nepotism encouraged by lawmakers in government jobs. It is about the fate of those tens of thousands of students to be taught by the teachers, who got appointment through backdoor. It is about those who were deprived of jobs by tampering of marks of those candidates — a staggering 255 of 350 total posts — recommended by politicians. It is about the then education director JD Sangma’s statement — if there is any iota of truth — that the tampering was done at the instruction of then education minister Ampareen Lyngdoh. He sensationally stated that some of the scoresheets were tampered with even at the residence of the minister and others at his official chamber.

With all these questions and concerns of hundreds of job-seeking youths besides the students waiting to be taught by them in the coming decades, the education scam is much more grievous that a multi-crore irregularity in awarding contracts in a government project. The involvement of so many politicians in the scam — it is yet to be established whether the MLAs recommended the names in lieu of cash or kind — speaks volume of the transparency in government appointments. So long as government continues protecting such erring lawmakers, the public disappointment with the system will continue forever.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 4, 2017)

Why Aadhaar

It is not Meghalaya government’s ‘failure’ to enroll its people into Aadhaar, rather its ‘failure to protect people from Aadhaar’ is going to become an election issue in the state. Quite interestingly, chief minister Mukul Sangma, otherwise known for his liberal stand on issues, said he ‘shares’ the people’s concern over Aadhaar intruding the privacy of individuals. He also cited the unresolved influx and illegal migration problem as his logic for not welcoming Aadhaar. His statement came close on the wheels of a forum comprising church leaders and pressure groups launching an ‘opt-out’ campaign and over 200 people giving written consent to be withdrawn from Aadhaar enrollment. Another group of church leaders from Garo Hills also came in support of the campaign. There are support pouring in from other pressure groups from West Khasi Hills and Garo Hills as well.

The anti-Aadhaar trend in Meghalaya is quite interesting given the scenario in the rest of the country, especially the rest of the North-east. The country as on October 31 achieved 87.9% Aadhaar coverage. Barring Assam and Meghalaya, the state with lowest Aadhaar coverage is Nagaland – 55.5%. In Assam (7.1%), it was not yet introduced yet due to the ongoing update of National Registration of Citizens (NRC) in the state. But it is going to be introduced in December with the chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal instructing related departments to launch awareness campaigns. Other NE states also have achieved high Aadhaar coverage — Arunachal Pradesh – 73.1%, Sikkim – 87.5%, Tripura – 89.3%, Manipur – 76.5%, Mizoram – 76.4%. And Meghalaya stands out with 15.3%!

Involvement of religious leaders in the campaign suggests an element of resentment over ‘hurting religious sentiment’. Despite such talks, no church leader has so far made it clear how Aadhaar would violate the religious sentiment of the Christians, the majority population in the state. And if that is the case, are the Christians in Mizoram where the ration of the community is the highest not aware of it! If it is influx and fear of illegal migrants getting citizenship, this concern prevails more in Assam and also other north-eastern states. Lastly, are people in advanced states like Punjab (100.4%) and Kerala (99.8%) not worried about right to privacy. With a 1.3 billion people, India would increasingly become unmanageable, if not for technology like Aadhaar that would channelise the various government benefits to the beneficiaries without any in a hassle-free manner even up to the remotest corner of the country.

(Published as The Meghalaya Guardian as editorial on November 3, 2017)